Video: Antonieta Villamil in Documentary Voices in Wartime and the interview The Role of Poets and the Irak War

Video of Antonieta Villamil in Voices in Wartime - Documentary film by Andrew Himes regarding poets against war and an interview to Antonieta Villamil regarding the Role of Poets In Society, The Irak War and the conflict in Colombia.


No matter how significant Poets Against War was, it’s still a tiny movement, in comparison to world history. This film is about the power of poetry to explore the reality of war, the emotional essence of war and how is experienced across borders from different perspectives. We have a lieutenant general from West Point for example, we have a woman poet from Colombia who lost her brother to disappearance, and we have a Vietnam veteran who returned from the war to face thirty years of nightmares.

The idea is to help the audience understand war in a new way. It is not going to change history to tell the story of Poets Against War. What might change history is if people come to the next decision point about whether to go to a war and they have a different point of view, because they understand the reality of war at a deeper level.

The Role of Poets and the Iraq War

This interview was reproduced 
from an interview for the film 

What was the connection that you felt between the disappearance of your brother and the war in Iraq?

The war in Iraq made it feel very personal because I saw in it the pattern of the unfortunate foreign policy of the United States repeated. With this war in Iraq I knew many innocent people were going to be killed for something that from the beginning was a lie. 

I was very worried and uneasy thinking that a country can go to another country and just basically take away, by means of lying, their natural resources, which in this case is oil. That happens in Colombia too. 

Did you feel that you could do anything about the United States invading Iraq? 

I took to the streets. I took to all the possibilities. I went to Answer; I went to meetings with Not in Our Name, with Latinos Against War.  We organized a big march in East L.A.  I went to all the marches that I could. Prior to the war in Iraq was 9-11 and we were left for a few months with our mouths open thinking it just could not be true. It could not happen here. It was not possible. It was as if a nightmare was repeating itself. I felt like I was back on a street in a third world country. How could it be happening here? 

Then everything started building up, and building up to the war in Iraq. It was one mistake and one overlaying of wording and stupid reasons after the other. It was unbelievable. You were seeing these big, fat, unreal lies being built in front of our own noses and we could not do anything about it. We felt so impotent. I could not believe that we fell into this collective karma. How long did we think we could get away with it?

How did you hear about Poets Against War? 

I am a founder member of Latinos Against War, where we were in contact with lots of people that were against the war. I know many poets. I do not know Sam Hamill personally but I knew Ram Devineni from Rattapallax Press in New York. We did Dialog Among Civilizations and Poets Against Violence. 

I organized a Poetry Marathon Against War in Iraq in Los Angeles. Since the war in Iraq I’ve been writing a lot. I had all these poems about my brother and other poems about the war in Colombia. I wrote poems about different experiences of war and what it does to people. And I write about the disappeared a lot. We are witnesses and how can we not write that? 

I started communicating with a lot of people through the Internet and I sent the first poem I wrote in English “My Name is Pedro” to Poets Against War and they published that poem.

When you sent your poem, did it make you feel that something was happening? 

Sending the poem to Poets Against War and knowing the stand that the poets took made me feel better. However, I knew that even if we could not stop the war this is the place where poets should be. I felt this is what we should be doing, even if at that point, this war was going to happen. What we were doing was part of something bigger. All the machinery put into creating this war did not start a few months ago or since September 11. It started way before that, because of many accumulated events. I knew that once the machine reached that boiling point it was just the warmongers, the dogs of war letting the people know that this is going to happen despite whatever you do. That was very clear. For us it was just a way of telling people what was happening and a way of saying no. This is what we should be doing, saying NO.

What do you think is the role of the poet? 

Poets are the critics of feelings and experience. We do pretty much what the mathematicians do with numbers, but we do it with language. Poetry for me is at the foundation of culture. 

At this moment we are speaking of poetry but we are also recording. We are recording a memory of the human experience that will last a long time. That memory has to be into words first, of image and color, and then our human experience takes off to a place in time and permanence. I think poets are witnesses in charge of making human experience permanent. One of the funny things about poetry is that you will never see a bestseller poet. Maybe, after 50 to 100 years, you can make it into the news, like Neruda. I feel very lucky if people hear a little bit of that experience coming through me. You cannot help but to realize that what you are writing, even though it may sometimes sound deep or dense, you are writing for a child in the future. Children, for the poet, are the eyes into the future.  I hope that they will be reading those poems when they are 40 or 50. I have seen poems change and help people’s lives.

Is the role of writers and poets in Latin America more vital than here in the United States?

The role of the poet everywhere, not only in the United States but also in the rest of America, and the world is to be the conscience of the culture, of the community; not only by writing, but also by reading. There are many young poets performing their poetry now because we have mass communication like radio and movies. That seems to be getting people to listen to poets. It is a challenge but I think that poets resort to all kind of mediums. We collaborate with painters, with musicians, with dancers, with filmmakers. Therefore, there is this active, organic life of the writer and the poet within the community. Besides that, many of the ideas for music, dance, film, visual art, etc, go though a written form before you perform it in public.

What else can poets do?

Organize and be aware of their surroundings. 

One very important thing that poets can do is bring poetry from up in the clouds and put it on earth. Put jeans, tennis shoes, and a T-shirt on poetry and send it walking the streets to notice what is going on in the present. I hope that poetry at that moment can find the same rhythm as that of the human breath.

The Conflict in Colombia

This interview was reproduced 
from the film Voices in Wartime.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I was born in Bogota, Colombia in 1962 in the month of the comets. In the Chinese horoscope, I am a tiger. These are the monkey years so usually tigers have a very slow difficult time in a monkey year. I started dancing before walking and at ten years of age, I took on poetry. I just love words and music. My father used to play a lot of music while I was in the womb. He always played music in the morning, so I always woke up to music. I think that I noted the rhythms. We talk in Colombia like Italians, very fast and when we talk, we look like we are fighting. However, we are just talking. 
Why did you leave Colombia? 

I left Colombia out of some kind of strange destiny, because I had to be here talking with you today. One thing I was always glancing a little bit ahead into the future, reading the signs around me. I became aware of all the injustices. I knew that if I stayed I would have to go to the mountains or I would probably be disappeared eventually like many activists. Deep inside I saw no other way. I had a great feeling of running and running away. That is what I did. 

Like a puzzle, I saw it unfolding, the pieces one by one until I got out. I went to Miami. It has become the longest vacation. Before I left Colombia I remember looking at every bird, every tree, every street, at faces, houses, buildings, and I knew I was saying goodbye for a very long time. I knew that I would never leave otherwise. 

It is as if I left because I wanted to stay. That was a way of surviving beyond and before it happened. I saw it coming and I said that I was not going to let it happen to me, and I wanted to write poetry. Poetry saved me.

Tell me about the conflict in Colombia. 

The conflict in Colombia started a very long time ago, more than 50 years ago. Colombia is a very rich country. It is one of the richest countries in its biodiversity. It has a lot of petroleum, 24-karat gold, and emeralds. It has very rich soil. You throw into soil a seed and the next thing you see is a tree with very sweet, exotic fruit. 

It is a country with a very long history of corrupted governments. All the rich land and all the opportunities are in the hands of very few. You can just handle so much humiliation, hunger, and lack of opportunities. What do you do with all these frustrations, wanting to do what we would be able to do in a normal environment? 

People have to fight for their rights and have to fight for justice. Until social justice is achieved in Colombia, you can kill everyone and the situation is not going to change. Hunger and injustice is like the sun; you cannot just put your finger up to block it and then try to say see? It is not there. It will always be there until justice is done.

This conflict is between the government and the paramilitary groups in the countryside? 

The conflict in Colombia is very complicated. In the beginning, it was about people with few opportunities fighting against government corruption. Then the middle and upper classes that own all the land needed people to defend them, so along came a group called the paramilitary. The government is a suspect of having ties to the paramilitary. The military erases whole generations of people that have leftist ideas about where the country should go. Whole generations in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Colombia disappeared in this way. Then the narco-traffickers appeared and have ties to parts of the government. The guerrillas are suspect of having ties to the narco-traffickers – not all of them, but enough to make the fight very complex, then you lose your objective, your reason. 

The guerillas say they defend the poorest people who have been taken advantage of for over 100 years. Then where do you draw the line? It is very complex. It is almost like we had our own Vietnam War in Colombia.

Do people in America know about what is going on in Colombia? 

I don’t think that enough people in the United States are aware of what’s going on. People are a little more aware lately with the help of technology like e-mail and digital cameras that can capture certain realities, but there are a lot of things that still seem like well kept secrets. For example a lot of people don’t know that we have a School of the Americas in Texas, which provides training to the military and mercenaries that go all over Latin America in a witch hunt against people with left ideas. I hope that more people will get to know because it is important to put a stop to the School of the Americas. United States is Not America. America goes all the way from Alaska to the Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. Central America and Mexico are America. Colombia is America. The military trained in the School of the Americas resort to the worst weapon that you can use against Civil Democracy and the social unification of Latin America, which is disappearance against people of leftist ideas. A conscientious democracy cannot exist without the participation of either right or left. It is like allowing a giant to pick on its own arms and legs or allowing the legs and arms to pick on its own brain. And if we don’t take care of the fire in our neighbor’s house, our brother’s house, it’s only a matter of time until it starts raining fire on our heads.

How has the political situation that you grew up with in Colombia affected your poetry? 

The political situation I grew up in affects my writing, and I write about social content a lot. I also write about love. However, when I write about love, even an erotic poem, I speak of something that exists within a social context. We are individuals, but we are also part of a collective community. Everything that has to do with social issues influences our individual lives. Love, things we see, daily life, is influenced by what is going on around you.

Tell us about your poem “Letter To the Brother That Went to War”. 

That poem had a different title: “What December 1990 Brought Us.” It is a poem written to my brother. I changed the title because suddenly it was not only my brother but our brothers and sisters – when I looked closely it was a whole generation that was disappearing and with the war in Iraq it was clear that generation was going to grow. We have to start serious investigation regarding the disappeared in Colombia. There is a sickening silence around this theme in Colombia.

What was your brother like?  

I am very close to my brother. Pedro is his name, Pedro Villamil. I came to the United States in 1984 and I promised him I was going to take him with me a little later. I struggled here in the United States, coming to a new country, to a completely different culture and a completely different language. For a poet, that was a lot to take. Then I had to start putting it off. I did not see my family for eight years. In the ninth year I lost him to disappearance. Disappearance means we do not know where, we do not know how, we just do not know. He went out one day, like anybody else, and never came back. He had no reason to leave. He just never came back.

Do you think about Pedro a lot? 

I have dreams about him. I think that a family cannot recover from disappearance. Not knowing what happened, not having a place to mourn. My mother, Alicia is a very fervent Catholic. She never wanted to give a mass in the church for him. We told her that we probably ought to have a place in the cemetery for Pedro but she refused. She said, no, Pedro is coming back one day. He would never have left my mother. Pedro was the kind of son that a mother dreams. Always making her laugh, helping her. Mamma you want this, but it broke, so I will fix it, do not worry. Pedro was 32-years old when he disappeared. He was the light of the house, the light of my mother’s eyes.

What do you think happened?  

When I went back to Colombia I started asking friends and people I knew, about the disappearance of my brother. I found myself not only asking about my brother Pedro but also asking, “Where is Julieta? Where is Chaparro? Where is Juan? Where is Maria? Where is Magdalena?  Where is…”

I was afraid to ask. I was very afraid to ask because the answer was always the same. I realized it was a whole generation.

The answer was always that the people disappeared?  

Yes, or it was, “So-and-so was tired of the corruption and what was going on and they took up arms and went to the mountains. Or he was taken by the paramilitary. Or he’s in jail. Her, she’s… we do not know. She disappeared. She went to the corner just to buy bread and never came back. Last time we saw him was at a party and these men that came in a car took him.” “Oh, and where is so and so?” “Well, I think he’s somewhere in a country very far away.” Suddenly a whole generation I knew was not there – they were all away or lost.

In this poem, does Pedro become a symbol of all the people who have disappeared? 

In the poem “My Name is Pedro” he is a symbol of all the people disappeared in Central and South American countries. Pedro died of this disappearance and it is not like other people you know who died of cancer, or of AIDS, which is terrible. People who die suddenly, who go to sleep and never wake up, so you can say he died of this or he died of that. But when you don’t know, when you don’t find a place to go to mourn that loss, what did they die of? 

That is why I said Pedro died of disappearance. He is in the long list of people that disappear every day in Central and South American countries.
The first stanza, “What can I tell you dear brother, mutilated in silence,” is so hopeless and so deeply sad. Were you talking to your brother?  

I feel like I am talking to my brother every time I write about him. It is a way of communicating with him, with his memory. A way to reconcile with the idea of not seeing him getting older, having children… 
Letter to the brother that went to war

Listen to this poem: mp3 / windows media


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